MISOGYNY & AARON SORKIN, “THE WEST WING,” EPISODE 1.15, “Celestial Navigation”

I should be writing. I mean, I should be writing novels. I’ve got three manuscripts actively in the works, plus some shorter pieces I’m working on. I shouldn’t be writing this.

But for various reasons, I can’t write those other things. So I’ll snark instead. It should get my engines going.

As a reminder, here’s what we’re looking for:

  1. Physical comedy is used to undercut a female character’s competence.
  2. A female character’s sexual appeal or sexual/romantic relationship (or, sometimes, maternal qualities) with a male character is primary.
  3. A female character displays “feistiness”. “Feistiness” is a frequent shorthand in liberal misogyny for “See? She’s strong and independent and we find that adorable! What’s the problem?”
  4. Femininity or feminine concerns are disparaged, by male or female characters.
  5. Any character is rude to his/her female subordinate with no consequences.
  6. A male character is lauded and glorified in an unlikely way by a female character or characters.
  7. A female character screws up at her job.
  8. Anger (or other emotions/behaviors) coming from a female character is unreasonable or mysterious, either to the audience or to another character.
  9. A female character plays the Exposition Fairy. Note: Having Exposition Fairies is not in and of itself a problem. It’s necessary in most fiction. But in The West Wing, the Fairy is almost always a female character, and is almost always asking a male character for explanation, and would almost always certainly know the information she’s asking for, so that the fact that she’s asking indicates that she’s not that good at her job.
  10. An episode goes by that does not pass the Bechdel test.
  11. Lip service is paid to female power or agency or simply the existence of females in this world without, oh, say, actually casting one or giving one something cool to do.
  12. A male character or characters act(s) as white knight to a female character or characters.
  13. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! – A display of homophobia

And a ! for every piece of evidence that Toby and C.J. are FwB, and a TNFTS for every time the boys are Too Noble For This Shit.

Ooh, I quite like this episode, because of rather than despite its Sorkin-ness. I really love the structure of it, the frame, and the opportunity to make fun of Josh.

Previously, on “The West Wing,” Jed Bartlett nominated Roberto Mendoza, (Edward James Olmos) to the Supreme Court. Also, in case you forgot, Sam Seaborn is the Deputy Communications Director, Josh Lyman is the Deputy Chief of Staff, Josiah Bartlett is Josiah Bartlett and Charles Young prefers Charlie. He met cute with Zoe Bartlett. Leo McGarry is the White House Chief of Staff, even though some obnoxious British guy thought he was the butler, and C.J. Craig is their host. Oh, and Toby Ziegler works for the White House. That was fun. Yes, the previouslies were just a series of blips to remind you who everyone is. I like it.

We’re in an auditorium, for the third installment of this year’s Marjorie DuPont lecture series. (This is actually a good example of 11 – you couldn’t make the host of the lecture series a woman, but you’ll give the lecture series a woman’s name. I’m not saying it’s an outrage, just that it’s a symptom.) It’s a good turn-out, so they must be excited to meet the guest that night. Who, we can surmise, is Josh Lyman, who’s in the darkened backstage on the phone. Roberto Mendoza, nominee to the Supreme Court, was arrested. For drunk driving, Sam, on the other end of the phone, and also on the street in the cold, tells us. Also resisting arrest and maybe disorderly conduct. It all happened half an hour ago, so details are sketchy. Thing is, Sam assures us, Roberto Mendoza doesn’t drink. Also the press doesn’t have it and it’s possible the cops don’t understand what’s going on because they don’t know that the guy they arrested is the guy who’s the nominee for Supreme Court. Sam gets in a cab. Josh keeps talking to the phone even though Sam’s hung up. His realization of this is pretty funny. I should make clear, none of my hatred for Josh should be transferred to Bradley Whitford, who is a fabulous actor with great timing and is really very, very good at being Josh Lyman.

The guy onstage in the auditorium is winding up Josh’s introduction. The audience welcomes Josh and Josh goes out on stage. Josh slips on his mike and is told that he’s here to tell them what it’s like to work for the president.

Seriously, I’m a sucker for framing devices, and this one is used particularly well.

At the White House (which still seems to be making efforts to save on electricity), C.J. asks Sam what’s going on and Sam claims it’s not as bad as she thinks. “Was the president’s nominee for the Supreme Court arrested for drunk driving?” C.J. wants to know. Yes. So it’s pretty bad, then.

Sam reiterates that Roberto Mendoza doesn’t drink and that he was, in fact, arrested for Driving While Hispanic. Toby enters and claims to have stepped off the edge of the world. C.J. wonders why Mendoza refused the Breathalyzer, and Toby claims it’s because Mendoza is a crazy man who is out to ruin Toby’s life. Bail has not been posted because it’s Friday night and they’re in Wesley, Connecticut and nobody can find a judge. Toby promises to find a way to blame this on C.J., which surprises C.J. not at all. 5? Sure. Toby is unusually hostile to C.J. all episode. Maybe they’ve stopped doin’ it.

Leo barges in. They should call Mendoza’s lawyer, he says. They always say that on TV shows. Does everyone have a lawyer? I mean, I claim I’m going to call my lawyer all the time, but by that I mean my dad, my mom, or my grandfather. He tells Sam to get on the Air Force jet waiting to take him to Wesley. He also threatens to blame C.J. if Sam sees any reporters upon getting off the plane. No number for that, since that’s actually C.J.’s job.

Toby’s going with Sam. Leo makes a warning noise but Toby has had it up to here with the judge. Leo says he wants his phone to ring every 15 minutes with updates. Wow, I’m so glad I don’t have to live in a world where I’d want my phone to be ringing every fifteen minutes.

After the credits, the lecture hall guy asks Josh to tell the audience about a typical day at the White House. Josh says there’s no such thing, that it starts out as a 9-5 job, but you can count on that being blown to hell by 9:30. Josh is really at his best in this setting. The lecture guy asks for an example, and Josh offers one from this week, actually, within the last 36 hours. The story he’s about to tell either started with “a cabinet secretary losing her temper, a committee chairman baiting her during a hearing, the president answering a question he shouldn’t, a dentist appointment, or me, being stupid.” He claims he’d like to think that it’s less the last one than others think. And really, he’s being utterly charming.

“It started out as a day that was supposed to trumpet the president’s vision for educational reform,” Josh tells us, which bumps us into thirty-six hours ago.

We’re in the press room. C.J.’s at the podium, Sam and Toby are in the otherwise empty audience. Sam is asking for the bullet points. C.J. insists she has this, and Sam is confident in her, but Toby wants to hear them anyway, which annoys C.J. Still, she tells us the bullet points: Forgive student loans for people who become teachers and spend at least three years in an underserved school district; provide cash bonuses for people who leave other careers to become teachers; give districts money to institute training programs wherein the old guard teach the newbies. Toby reminds her to say that half of all new teachers quit in the first three years. That sounds really high. I thought it had gotten markedly worse in the decade and a half since this aired, and that sounds like it’d be high even now. Anyone want to give me stats on this?

Josh calls Toby out and they leave. Sam follows C.J. out of the room and encourages her to push the briefing from 11:00 to 1:00. But Carol doesn’t want to move the briefing; C.J. has a thing. C.J. feels this is a good excuse to move the thing. When Sam discovers C.J.’s thing is a dentist appointment, because she’s experiencing some pain, he insists she keep the dental appointment and set the briefing for 2:00. He’s nuts for dental hygiene, he tells us. C.J. sends him away.

Josh and Toby are pedeconferencing about the HUD secretary Deborah O’Leary calling someone named Jack Wooden (and also all Republicans) a racist. Toby asks his assistant Bonnie to get this information for him and she responds, “You want it now?” So he gets rude and I’m giving this a 5 for Toby for being rude, and also a 5 for the writers deciding this was the best use for Bonnie as a character – to make her seem lazy and be subject to Toby’s abuse.

Toby is mad at O’Leary, but Josh is amused because Josh has enormous sympathy for people who are baited saying true but rude things to assholes. See, for example, Episode 1.

Mandy comes in to brief Toby, Josh, and the audience on the incident. O’Leary, in response to Wooden’s decrying of HUD, said, “Public Housing has serious problems, Mr. Chairman; I don’t deny that. But if you and your colleagues in the Republican Party-”

“No,” moans Toby.

“-were as invested in solving the problems associated with poverty as you were in scoring political points on the backs of poor people and minorities, you might just see the value,” Mandy says. Wooden apparently responded by asking if the Secretary was calling him a racist, and she responded, “If the shoe fits.”

Toby is very annoyed.

We shoot back to Josh, relating this tale to the lecture audience. He tells us the hard part is telling the president about this.

“If the shoe fits?!” the president says. Toby reports that O’Leary doubled down to reporters outside the room, too. The president seems more upset that she, as Leo puts it, “resorted to cliche.” Charlie calls the president out.

They head into one of the meeting rooms, where a whole bunch of reporters stand and clap.

Josh tells the lecture audience, “The president spoke briefly. The president has never spoken briefly in his life, but he spoke.” This was the bill-signing for education reform. After the president signed the bill, he answered some questions from the press. Josh invites us to marvel that, even though the number one issue on Americans’ minds, they claim, is education, and the president was signing a huge education bill, the first question from the press was-

“Mr. President, do you agree with Deborah O’Leary that Jack Wooden is a racist?” asks our old friend Danny Concannon. “And if not, do you plan on asking for her resignation?”

Jed sings O’Leary’s praises. Danny insists that doesn’t answer his question. Jed was hoping he wouldn’t notice. He says that he agrees with O’Leary that the Republican party doesn’t have a plan for combatting poverty, but that there are Republicans who are working hard on the issue and that he, Jed, is working with them. Danny says, “I’m sure that was an answer to some question, Mr. President, but it wasn’t the answer to mine,” which is a good line and I’ve definitely used it in a classroom setting a time or two.

Back to Josh in the lecture hall. “If only we’d stopped it right there,” he says. But it took them all too long to realize that there was no C.J. to manage the press. Dun dun dun!

Back at the signing, the president continues that O’Leary went too far in assigning motive to Wooden and the Republicans, and that O’Leary would be meeting with Leo later, and that “an apology would be appropriate.” This causes the senior staff to groan, and Sam finally jumps in and says the president’s late for lunch with the U.N. Ambassador. Who, Toby mentions as they pedeconference out, is in Portugal.

Josh in the lecture hall continues to lament that they didn’t step in, when his phone rings. He uncomfortably excuses himself from the stage and takes the call. It’s Toby. They’re lost. They’re hoping Josh, being from Connecticut, knows which exit they should take for Wesley. Sam thinks they’re not lost. Josh says he’s in the middle of something, hangs up, and returns to the stage, claiming the call was about the trade deficit. I guess that’s what you say when you don’t want follow-up questions. Anyway, he tells the audience that now, the day was about the showdown O’Leary was about to have with the president, and if she would apologize, and if she didn’t, if she’d be fired. “And the day was about to get worse. Because I was about to step to the plate.”

After what was presumably a commercial break, we’re in the car with Sam and Toby. Toby is fretting but Sam is using “celestial navigation.”

Josh, in the lecture hall, reminds us that O’Leary’s on her way and she’s going to be angry.

And, in fact, Deborah O’Leary is yelling at Leo, asking why the president would demand an apology without hearing her side of the story. It’s the standard argument on this show. Moral High Ground vs. Political Reality. I won’t go into details. In the end, Leo tells her, she’s doing great work and the president loves her. “He’ll cry, for three minutes, when he fires your ass. Then he’ll ask what’s next?” She agrees, reluctantly, to swallow her pride and apologize, and Leo turns sympathetic.

I’m sure if I were better versed in race relations in this country, I’d have a shit-ton to say about this scene. But as far as I in my privileged and ignorant rich white girl position can tell, this is a pretty honest and not particularly offensive exchange.

Josh, in the lecture hall, surmises that this should have been the end of it. C.J. briefs, redirects to education, all is good. “Who here has had emergency root canal?” Josh asks the audience.

A day ago, C.J. knocks on Josh’s door. She has had emergency root canal. Which Josh entertains himself by making her say several times. 1. She’s got to cancel the briefing, she says. Well, bwiefing. Josh pretends he thinks she’ll be fine to brief, but he’s just amusing himself again. 1. But they still have to have a briefing, so Josh says he’ll do it. C.J. thinks that’s a very bad idea and tells Josh he gets “hostile”. Which he insists he doesn’t. Unless hostility is called for. C.J. says to have Sam do it. Josh claims he’s in Foggy Bottom, but only so that he can make C.J. say Foggy Bottom. 1. Sam, and Toby, are both busy, so Josh is going to brief. C.J. begs him to “twy vewy, vewy hard not to destwoy us.” 1. Josh replies, “You shouldn’t say that, C.J. You’ve got a great body.” 2 and 5.

Danny tries to stop Josh from doing this, but Josh dismisses him. “Let me tell you something, compadre. I’m not your girlfriend, 4 I’m not your camp counselor 4, and I’m not your 6th grade teacher you had a crush on 4. I’m a graduate of Harvard and Yale, and I believe that my powers of debate can rise to meet the Socratic wonder that is the White House press corps.”

Give him hell, Danny.

C.J. watches the briefing from her office, looking nervously.

In the lecture hall, clearly self-mocking, Josh says everything was fine, that he dispensed with the O’Leary matter, and that he was imposing discipline that he felt C.J. lacked. 4, but ameliorated by the fact that he is, right now, being self-mocking. But he’s mocking the self from a day ago, who was clearly being a misogynist pig. So the is for a-day-ago Josh.

In the briefing room, Josh is taking questions. Josh calls on Mike, who asks when is the last time the president had cigarette. Josh calls the question stupid, and C.J., in her office, despairs. Another reporter says it’s not a stupid question if the president’s going to be so anti-tobacco, and, to Josh’s claim that the president quit smoking years ago, that the president bummed a cigarette from her two days ago. Josh skips to another reporter, who just asks why he’s not answering the question about the president smoking, and Josh says he’ll look into it. He calls on Danny.

Danny asks Josh if the president is worried at all about the effects of low unemployment and increased wages on inflation. Josh starts saying that the president is pleased about dropping unemployment rates, but Danny insists on asking if he’s doing anything about inflation. Josh doesn’t really answer again and the smoking reporter asks if the president has a plan to fight inflation. “Twenty-four Ph.ds on the council of economic advisors, Katie,” Josh condescends. “They have a plan to fight inflation.” Danny pipes up. “Is the reason you won’t tell us about it because it’s a secret?” he asks.

“Yeah, Danny,” Josh sarcastics. “He has a secret plan to fight inflation.”

In her office, C.J. puts her head in her hands.

In the lecture series, Josh acknowledges that this is when the wheels came off the wagon. The host says this is a good time for a break and invites everyone to stretch their legs. Josh goes out to the hall and starts dialing Toby, but first receives a compliment from a nubile co-ed. 6.

Toby and Sam are still lost. That celestial navigation thing doesn’t work if the thing you think is the North Star is actually the Delta Shuttle. Toby is annoyed but Sam seems unperturbed. Josh razzes them about getting lost, so Toby razzes him about the secret plan to fight inflation. (This, incidentally, is the one misuse of the frame. There should have been indications earlier – even if we didn’t understand them – that Toby was pissed at Josh for something.)

As it turns out, Toby and Sam have, in fact, found the Wesley police station.

The two of them walk in and befuddle the police officer at the desk. In his very Sam way, Sam says, “Officer Peter, we’re in a certain amount of trouble tonight, and the only thing I’ve got going for me is that you’re in more trouble than we are. My name is Sam Seaborn, I work for the president, and the sooner you reach the conclusion I’m telling the truth, the  better off we’re all going to be. Why don’t you go get your watch commander?” The officer does so.

Sam turns to Toby and geeks about directions. Toby is very not interested.

Sergeant McNamara comes out and reacts with hostility to the problem Sam describes. Then the officer shows him a newspaper photo with Toby and Sam next to the president. As the sergeant is goggling, the phone rings, and Sam advises he get that, because it’s likely the governor of Connecticut. (Is it, though? We never see or hear about that again.)

In the lecture hall, Josh acknowledges that he fell for Danny’s trick. In the briefing rom, the reporters are jumping on him. C.J. takes some more of her painkillers. Josh looks terrified and Danny looks smug.

Josh leaves the briefing room and Donna approaches him, trying to be sympathetic and failing. C.J. yells at him, Toby comes in to yell at him, and Josh fails to be as apologetic as he ought to be. And Toby makes fun of C.J.’s voice. 1.

Sam bursts in with a problem that’s not Josh. “The only thing that could make my day worse,” Toby says, in the style of all TV characters, “is if Roberto Mendoza got involved.”

Roberto Mendoza is involved.

Josh tells the lecture hall who Roberto Mendoza is, and that Toby’s in charge of his confirmation process, which is a BFD, and very difficult to do, especially with Roberto Mendoza, who is not so into the tais-toi et soi belle (“shut up and look pretty”) attitude Supreme Court nominees are supposed to adopt before their confirmation hearing.

C.J. is explaining to Leo that Roberto Mendoza has said to the Chicago Tribune that the president shouldn’t have asked Deborah O’Leary to apologize for calling Jack Wooden a racist. Only she still just had “woot canow” so Leo is too irritated to listen to her. 1. Sam repeats what C.J. said. Leo is pissed. He thought Mendoza was on vacation in Nova Scotia. Josh laughs that there are still telephones in Nova Scotia, and everyone in the room sends “STFU” vibes his way. When C.J. tries to speak again, Toby shuts her down. 1.

Leo tells us that the president’s at a thing in New Orleans, at which there will be no press, so they’ll tell him when he gets back. Or, when he wakes up and gets to the office, which, after getting home at 3:30 am, will be at 7:00 am. Poor Mr. President.

Josh offers that the senior staff be with Leo “in spirit” when Leo tells the president what’s going on the next morning. Leo tells him they’ll be there in person, too.

Josh is telling the lecture audience that saying controversial things about the president’s allies has been a theme for Roberto Mendoza over the past few months. Then his phone rings again and he has to take it.

It’s Sam. They’re in. Toby goes in to a jail cell to talk to Mendoza.

After the break, Josh is talking to the lecture audience again, telling them how Charlie Young has the second-hardest job in the White House, and that yesterday morning (or this morning), it’s Charlie’s job to wake the president up.

So we see Charlie trade work quips on the phone with the White House and be put through to the president. The very sleepy president keeps saying “What could you possibly want right now?” Charlie is very polite and professional. Jed professes to not know who he’s talking to or where he is but Charlie says, “Sir. I need you to dig in now. It was not a nightmare. You really are the president.” The president agrees to get up. I love this whole exchange.

Josh tells the lecture audience that Roberto Mendoza has been summoned to the White House, but that Mendoza planned on moseying to D.C. in about three days.

Charlie shows up in the residence to find the president still asleep. He wakes up the fairly hostile president but Charlie is unfazed. Because Charlie is the most professional person in the White House. He doesn’t even get mad when the president appears pleased that Charlie hasn’t even had the three hours of sleep that the president had.

The senior staff wait restlessly in one of the anterooms of the Oval Office. Possibly Leo’s office. I could tell if I had any memory. Or if they’d turn the lights on. Leo is flabbergasted that Mendoza is driving from Nova Scotia to D.C. Sam wants to talk directions.

The president enters, hostile, and they go into the Oval. They were in the Mrs. Landingham area, by the way. Josh starts explaining his part in the day’s catastrophe. The president is pissed, but holding himself together, despite Josh’s total idiocy. Toby then relays the Mendoza issue to the president, and Sam relays Mendoza’s travel plans, geekishly. The president hopes that nothing today makes any of this any worse.

The rest of the senior staff leave but Josh hangs around to apologize, and also mention the thing about smoking. The president continues not to kill Josh.

Josh wraps up his lecture, but when the host asks what ever happened with Mendoza, Josh says that Mendoza is still en route. What’s actually happening, of course, is that Mendoza is in jail.

Sam waits in the lobby of the police station. The sergeant says he was the one who pulled him over, and isn’t entirely convinced Mendoza wasn’t drinking. Sam says Mendoza has chronic persistent hepatitis, a non-progressive form of liver inflammation, and does not drink because drinking would kill him. If he drank enough to be considered a drunk driver, he’d be dead. Great info, Sam, but does the sergeant of the Wesley police department need to know Mendoza’s medical condition? Isn’t that kind of private?

In the jail cell, Toby asks Mendoza why he didn’t take the Breathalyzer. Mendoza feels that, given that he was driving fine, etc., the Breathalyzer is an illegal search. Toby’s like, “Oh, my God, just call me instead of going to jail,” but Roberto Mendoza is TNFTS. Also they pulled him over because he’s Hispanic.

Toby wants to leave but Mendoza wants to fight this out. He’s pissed because his kid was in the car and saw him be arrested. Toby points out that his kid has also seen him in his judge’s robes with a gavel in his hand, but he claims that his kid doesn’t understand that. Because of TV. I’m not sure you’re correct about that, Roberto Mendoza. I think if he understands what police are, and his actual father is an actual judge, he has a pretty good idea of what a judge is, but I know that’s not what this is really about.

Toby is sympathetic. He promises that he really understands Mendoza’s anger and humiliation, but also, Mendoza is going to be a fucking Supreme Court judge if he stops pulling crap like this, and that Mendoza will be in a position not only to make his family proud, but to make this better for other “pissed-off guys with dark skin” (Mendoza’s words) in America. It’s a little white-guy-explaining-to-brown-guy-how-to-be, but it’s also human and well-acted, so I’m okay with it. I, not being a brown guy.

Out in the lobby, the desk officer wants to know if Sam has missile codes. Sam says he does. Toby and Mendoza come out. Toby collects Mendoza’s stuff. The sergeant looks uncomfortable. Toby insists that the sergeant apologize to Mendoza, and to his son. The sergeant agrees quickly.

Sam calls Josh to tell him it’s over, and Josh, at the lecture, promises that this is the last time his phone will ring. He says there’s another part of this story he can’t tell right now, but they should ask him back after the Senate confirms Mendoza.

No Bechdel test was passed this episode. Only three women spoke, never to each other, and two very briefly. 10.

TMP: 20  And most of them were earned using C.J. for comedy relief, in a way that directly undercut her ability to do her job.

I will say, though, that this episode should be taught in writing classes for how to use a frame, because it’s so well done. First of all, Josh as a character is at his charming best in that lecture hall. Second, there’s a connection between the frame and the story being told, and you don’t know about it until you need to know about it. Third, we move in and out of the frame exactly enough to keep it relevant and to use it well. Also, the writing is tight as anything this episode. See how often I quoted directly? That’s because I couldn’t improve and I didn’t want you to miss out. It’s a really, really well-done episode and serves as a good reminder that, for all that I bitch, I love this show.

2 thoughts on “MISOGYNY & AARON SORKIN, “THE WEST WING,” EPISODE 1.15, “Celestial Navigation”

  1. Jake abbott says:

    This is all very interesting. Do you purposefully leave out all the times the President picks on Charlie and Toby picks on Josh and Sam? If you look at it like male characters are mean to women… Probably good to mention they are mean to each other. Leo tells Josh he shouldn’t talk…. They all make fun of Sam’s freakish directions. Are those all belittling?

    Could it be the female characters are in fact just characters… And by my count 5 or 6 women speak in this episode… The press, the operator to Charlie, Donna, CJ, Bonnie. All part of the script… Plus Alison Janney won an Emmy based partly on this episode so…. There is the acting to consider.

    • perica1981 says:

      I do, actually, pick out the times the men make fun of each other, and I award a negative point to those instances, IF it is, in fact, a mirror of the way women are made fun of. So, for instance, when Josh screws up in the pilot, even though Leo is mad and everyone else is mad, they think he’s right, and say so, and the audience is supposed to be on his side. When a female character screws up, she just screws up, and the audience is expected to role their eyes at her (usually temporary) incompetence.

      The Bechdel test is not women speaking, it’s named women speaking to each other about something other than a man. It’s a little complicated with The West Wing, as when the women are speaking about “a man” (Josh, the president, Toby, whoever), they are also talking about their jobs, so how do you count that? On the other hand, none of the male characters HAS to talk about a woman in order to talk about their job. So. There’s that.

      The acting on this show is stellar. From everyone. But the storytelling is my consideration, not the acting.

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